Students turn to TikTok to fill gaps in school lessons

PHOENIX (AP) — Mecca Patterson-Guridy wants to learn, but for some subjects she isn’t always comfortable asking her teachers. So she turned to TikTok.

Online, the 17-year-old high school student from Philadelphia found videos on social media platforms about protests against police shootings, civic engagement and black and Latino history in the United States. Accounts she regularly checks feature segments such as “Fast Black History” and “Black Girl Magic Minute.”

The videos, Mecca said, address “things that get overlooked in the classroom.”

Conservative scrutiny around teaching about race, gender and sexuality has made many teachers reluctant to discuss issues that touch on cultural divides. To fill the gaps, some students are turning to social media, where online personalities, nonprofits and teachers are experimenting with ways to connect with them outside of school boundaries.

The platform has opened up new opportunities for educators looking to broaden the worldview of students.

Isis Spann, for her part, said she turned to digital content development after officials at a South Carolina school system discouraged her from sharing stories about certain figures in the rights movement. civics with her kindergarten students during Black History Month. She also recalls being told by the principal’s office to remove the earrings that said “Strong Black Queen” because they were deemed inappropriate.

“It didn’t suit me. I couldn’t help but think that if I wasn’t a black teacher I would have a different experience,” she said.

Spann left the classroom behind and now runs a business, “FUNdamentals of Learning,” which provides educational materials for use in person and online. She said she was grateful to be able to share her ideas regardless of the rules of any school or administrator.

“There’s no kind of gatekeeper for social media content,” she said.

In the “Black Girl Magic Minute” videos, 19-year-old Taylor Cassidy, a host on Sirius XM’s TikTok radio channel, highlights the stories of women who inspired her and shares news about black culture.

Atlanta-based personality Lynae Bogues hosts a segment called “Parking Lot Pimpin” on social and political topics in the black community. Kahlil Greene, who in 2019 became Yale University’s first black student body president, calls himself “the historian of Generation Z” on social media. He shares stories about black history and culture.

TikTok has encouraged more educational content on its platform. In May 2020, when most American students were still learning remotely due to COVID-19, the company announced that it was investing millions of dollars and teaming up with experts, public figures and educational institutions to post more learning materials under the hashtag #LearnOnTikTok.

Not everything published online is educational, to say the least.

Experts say a key to helping students sort out reliable educational material from everything else — including frivolity, misinformation and conspiracy theories — is to teach them digital literacy. They must be able to identify sources and find corroborating information.

Parents and educators should take the time to learn more about TikTok, especially to understand the platform and how to reach kids where they are, said Vanessa Dennen, a professor at Florida State University. TikTok alone has around 80 million users in the United States, and they tend to be young.

“Look, the thing is, kids are on TikTok because parents and adults aren’t,” Dennen said.

Videos made by bona fide actors who pique students’ interest can be as educational as anything they encounter in a library or lecture – as long as they have the background knowledge to put it into context, a Dennen said.

Meanwhile, new laws passed in more than a dozen states over the past two years have chilled classroom discussions on topics touching on racism and sexism.

The debates have extended to the books that children read. The American Library Association, which tracks book bans in the United States, documented 729 challenges targeting 1,597 titles in 2021 across libraries, schools and universities. This is the highest number of challenges recorded since tracking began in 2000.

Kennedy McCollum, 18, said she learned a lot about history from TikTok videos growing up in Phoenix. She still regularly turns to social media for information, to learn about social movements and to develop her personal finance skills.

“In high school, the teachers didn’t really talk about the current issues that are happening, especially when it comes to police brutality. It’s not talked about at all,” said McCollum, who now attends Hampton University, a historically black institution in Virginia.

Prior to high school, Mecca Patterson-Guridy attended Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, which emphasizes students’ pride in African heritage. As a student at Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts, where she has more white teachers, she said she felt not everyone was comfortable with issues related to race.

There were discussions of black history, she said, but they felt incomplete and based on black trauma, so she took to social media to find more positive portrayals.

“A lot of times Black history, Latino history, Asian history, Indigenous history gets overlooked. Let’s also talk about women’s rights, sex education and abortion,” she said. “I think we should talk more about the things that affect us directly.”

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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